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Better Understand the Crisis

Following the 2002 reporting by the Boston Globe, the US bishops commissioned a study, run independently by researchers at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. The study had a number of findings on the nature and scope of the abuse, and was followed up by a second study published in 2011 on the causes and contexts of clerical abuse of minors. Contribute to grounded and research-backed discussions by learning more about the report here! Below you'll find information pulled from the multi-year study, covering every diocese in the United States and thousands of priests.

*Note: the findings of this study derive largely from self-reporting by dioceses and would thus be subject to the level of openness, honesty, and transparency of diocesan leaders. Nonetheless, the researchers found that the information concerning abuse was consistent with other research in this area. In terms of mass analysis, this study currently represents the best data on the question of clerical abuse of minors. 

A Historical Phenomenon

Most people don't know that the amount of abuse incidents has had a specific shape. The annual count of incidents increased steadily from 1950 through the 1970s and then began to decline sharply at or about 1985, with the decline continuing through 2002.

But this doesn't mean we don't have an ongoing crisis, in terms of how allegations are shared, reported, and investigated. And even if fewer abuse incidents occur, they still do occur and require addressing.


Pedophilia, Homosexuality, and Celibacy

Pedophilia and Ephebophilia

Only a minority of priest abusers could be classified as pedophiles (2%) or ephebophiles (10.8%). The majority of abusers were "generalists," meaning that they didn't specialize in any single type of victim. This is consistent with the finding that abuse tends to be more about access, power, and opportunity than about orientation and attraction.


The increase of "homosexual men" in seminaries in the late 1970s and 1980s did not correlate with increased abuse. Rather, the report found that they correlated with a decreased incidence of abuse.

Three-fourths of priests had a clear sense of their sexual identity prior to seminary. One-quarter of the priests understood their identity as homosexual or bisexual. Priests who identified as homosexual, as well as those who participated in same-sex sexual behavior prior to ordination (regardless of sexual identity), were not significantly more likely to abuse minors than priests who identified as heterosexual. Accused priests (63%) were less likely than non-accused (83%) to have a clear articulation of sexual identity. Confusion about sexual identity was particularly notable for those priests ordained before the 1970's.

Priests with positive views toward homosexuality were most likely to have post-ordination sexual behavior, followed by those with a negative view and then those with a neutral view. But those with positive views were more likely to have adult, rather than minor, sexual partners. Priests with negative views toward homosexuality were more likely (but not significantly) to have minor victims than those with positive or neutral views.


No correlation was found between the requirement of celibacy and the incidence of abuse.

In-Seminary Sexual Behavior

Priests who participated in sexual behavior while in seminary were more likely to have post-ordination sexual behavior, though their partners were more likely to be adults. 

For same-sex sexual behavior, only in-seminary (not pre-seminary) same-sex sexual behavior was significantly related to post-ordination sexual behavior. Priests who had engaged in in-seminary same-sex sexual behavior were more likely to have sexual experiences with adults, and they were not significantly more likely to sexually abuse minors than priests with no same-sex sexual behavior in seminary.

Identifying Likely Abusers

The report found that the priest-abuser population was a heterogenous group, meaning that it is not possible to identify most potential abusers with traditional psychological assessments or through any single motive, characteristic, or experience. However, it is possible to reduce opportunities for abuse through appropriate training, education, and support.

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timing and frequency of abuse



Average time in ministry before an incident of abuse for priests ordained in the 1970s.



of abusers had one victim.



of abusers were responsible for 26 percent of the victims who had come forward by 2002.


Finkelhor's 4 underlying factors that act as a precondition for abuse


motivation to abuse


overcoming internal inhibitions to abuse


overcoming external factors


overcoming the child's resistance

often emotional congruence with the minor, as well as a blockage to (nonsexual) adult intimate relationships

through the excuses and justifications that alleviate their sense of responsibility for the behavior

by creating opportunities for abuse to occur

through grooming techniques

finkelhor factors

Recommendations for Prevention Policies


Focus on human formation in seminary can reduce the vulnerability of priests to abuse. Thus, the report recommended continuing education for priests, which the report identified as "long-neglected" at the diocesan level. Focus on the integration of priestly ministry and the tasks of pastoral ministry. 

Bishops will need human and financial resources to ensure the availability of ongoing formation. Judicial deployment of priests making possible for sabbaticals and other opportunities would be helpful. 

Also establish a clear delineation of behavioral expectations appropriate to a celibate life. The data indicates that abuse is most likely to occur at times of stress, loneliness, and isolation. These can trigger a desire in some priests to form inappropriate relationships. 

Situational Prevention Models

Prevention models take into account that new opportunities will arise and that over time offenders will adapt and change their modus operandi. Thus, the report recommends five ways to apply situational prevention strategies:

First, increase the effort by making it more difficult for priests to commit acts of abuse. Implement mandatory safe training programs to educate potential victims, potential abusers, and guardians.

Second, increase the risks by making it more likely that abusers will be identified and have more to lose. Increase the chance of being caught through safe environment training programs and increase the risk through a "zero-tolerance" policy. Also conduct periodic evaluations of priests to be alerted to questionable behavior and open avenues of communication.

Third, reduce the rewards by providing alternate outlets for close bonds with others. Priests should have outlets to form social relationships and suitable bonds with age-appropriate persons.

Fourth, reduce provocations by reducing the factors that may lead priests to abuse (such as stress).

Fifth, remove excuses for abuse through education about what types of behavior are and are not appropriate with minors. This can reduce the ability of priests to use techniques of neutralization.

Oversight and Accountability

Though the Catholic Church has undergone organizational change regarding responses to sexual abuse of minors, this change is not complete. This can take decades and requires both "buy in" and for these changes to become routine. Thus, transparency and accountability are very important.

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